Boston’s Best Tools: Best Control

 

Despite all of the advances in technology and statistics, measuring a pitcher’s control is a very difficult thing to do. Even the most advanced Pitch/FX approach does not consider the intent of the pitcher at all. We can look at results such as the percentage of pitches in the strike zone or the number of walks per nine innings, but we do not have any way of separating a pitch thrown on target from one that misses the catcher’s glove by a foot; if a pitch belongs on the inside corner and ends up in the zone at the outside corner, our data just sees a strike. Additionally, pitches thrown out of the zone are often intentionally outside the zone and not mistakes at all. Therefore, any statistical approach to the idea of control is flawed by its nature.

On the other hand though, a pitcher’s ability to locate certain pitches varies from game to game and from pitch type to pitch type. Without a mechanized system of tracking where the catcher set up against where the pitch was thrown, we will have sample size issues undermining the visual method.

So how do we look at control?

While the data might not be perfect, it does give us a place to start. In particular, we should look at walks per nine innings. If a pitcher has good control, he may throw out of the zone ahead in the count, but he should be attacking the zone when he is in danger of putting a runner on. The top pitchers by BB/9 (2008-2010) are the ones we will consider here.

 

Name

IP

K/9

BB/9

xFIP

Zone% 

O-Swing%

Josh Beckett

514.1

8.52

2.34

3.48

51.40%

26.10%

John Lackey

554.2

6.9

2.58

4.06

48.00%

28.60%

Jonathan Papelbon

204.1

10.09

2.64

3.35

50.50%

32.00%

Tim Wakefield

450.2

5.45

2.92

5.17

54.20%

24.60%

Jon Lester

621.2

8.72

3.08

3.51

47.50%

27.90%

 

Jonathan Papelbon struggled with his control last season, walking over a runner more than his 2.64 BB/9 overall rate from the past three seasons. In fact only, Tim Wakefield and Jon Lester were better last season than in the numbers above and Lester only slightly. None of the Red Sox staff is among the league’s elite in preventing free passes, but Beckett has been very good historically. Given their elite strikeout numbers, pitchers like Lester and Daniel Bard can afford a few extra walks, but for a pitcher like Lackey the rise in base on balls is killer.

One big surprise here is Tim Wakefield. Given the movement on his knuckleball it is very surprising that he limits walks better than many of his fellow pitchers. The key can be found just to the right. Wake pounds the zone with the knuckleball, allowing its movement to keep it from being hit hard. He has mastered the pitch so well now that he throws to the middle of the plate and that keeps 54.2% of his pitches in the zone, forcing batters to take their chances swinging. This isn’t really control however; neither Wake nor his catchers have much of an idea where the pitch will actually land.

Beyond considering walks, I think strikeouts are relevant to the issue. Pitchers who strike out a large number of hitters need to locate the ball well, especially when it comes to breaking balls. I have included out-of-zone swing percentage here with this in mind. A "purpose pitch" out of the zone is meant to generate a swing and result in either a strike or a weakly hit ball. Of course, it makes sense to look at who throws the most pitches in the zone as well, though as I said above, that can be deceiving. Finally I have included xFIP, because fielding independent pitching metrics seem appropriate for this topic. I have chosen xFIP because it attempts to eliminate some of the bad luck on home runs, and since our concern is control, we don’t want an inflated HR/FB rate skewing the results.

Lester and Beckett are fairly similar beyond the lefty/righty issue. Both have great strikeout rates and xFIP, both induce a good percentage of swings on pitches out of the zone and both yield a moderate number of walks. The biggest difference though is that Jon Jester is clearly ascending while Beckett is likely in decline. Using just 2010 data, Lester would beat out Beckett almost across the board. Still, Beckett has maintained better BB/9 rates throughout his career than even Lester’s best season. Last year Beckett struggled with injury and ineffectiveness, so we may want to focus on his track record a bit more.

Jon Lackey has exhibited excellent control by BB/9 in his career and there is every reason to believe that his 3.01 BB/9 last year was a fluke. However, his declining strike outs and the accompanying decline in swing strikes is disturbing. He has also attacked the zone significantly less in the past two seasons. If Lackey is going recover from his 2010 season, it will have to start with a return to attacking the zone. If his decline in strike outs is real, he cannot afford to be putting more men on base.

Jonathan Papelbon has a great case for best control and would easily take it if he hadn’t struggled so badly last season. He walked a career high 3.76 batters per nine innings and that was worst than everyone but Okajima, Delcarmen and Daisuke. He was in the zone 6.3% less than his career average. His dramatic increase in his breaking ball use accounts for some of that, but he clearly could not locate his fastball as well as he typically has. He does an excellent job of generating swings on his pitches outside the zone, but the increased walks were not countered by an increased K/9 rate. Pap needs to recover that fastball control to justify his hefty one-year deal and score a big multi-year deal in 2012.

Even after looking at the most relevant data, I still find the evidence coming up short. Watching our pitchers last season I would give the best control to Jon Lester, who, ironically has the highest BB/9 rate here. Beckett did not locate pitches well last season, in my opinion. He missed badly in the zone as much, if not more, than out of it. A pitch that drifts well out of zone is at worst a walk or a wild pitch; a ball that drifts into the middle of the plate can be a disaster. Beckett had many of those disasters in 2010. Lester misses out of the zone quite regularly, but not badly. He throws the edges and when he misses it is generally by small margins. If Beckett or Papelbon can rebound, they can certainly take over this title, but I can’t ignore their 2010 problems just yet.

If ever there was debate that could be settled by crowd sourcing, this is it. We have a vast pool of knowledge fans eager to voice their opinion and I hold more stock in that for evaluating control than any of the metrics I have tried here. With that, let the voting and debate begin-

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